Researching Africa: Problems, Initiatives, Resources
Researching Africa can be extremely difficult. This guide seeks to highlight some of the key problems faced and while it cannot answer every problem, some suggestions and resources are provided to assist in addressing these challenges.
- The information doesn’t exist
- The information may exist, but the search strategy doesn’t find it
- The researcher can find the reference, but not the item
- How can the researcher determine if the information is accurate and valid?
Problem1: The Information Doesn’t Exist
“My thesis advisor says I have to have current population data, but the latest census for Ghana hasn’t been published.”
“I’m doing a paper on the role of Anglo-American Mining Co. in apartheid, and need all the secret information they don’t put in the annual reports.”
“I’m looking for a product preference survey on soft drink brands in Mali.”
Problem 2: The Search Strategy Doesn’t Work
Some names, such as Ethiopian or Congolese names, don’t invert. Tekalign Wolde-Mariam is entered exactly the way it’s written here. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo is entered under Ngugi. Some honorifics, such as Aljahi, denoting someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, are also used as given names.
Catalogers turn to the Library of Congress Authority File for help. BUT indexes and databases don’t always consult authority files.
- Place names in Africa can change. After independence in 1980, the country once known as Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and its capital, once known as Salisbury, became Harare.
- Place names established by the Library of Congress as subject headings or corporate authors are determined by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
- BUT authors may use place names that are not accepted as subject headings, for example Biafra.
Ethnic Groups and Languages
- Variant spellings and forms, e.g. Fulani, Fula, Peul
- Prefixes, e.g. kiSwahili / Swahili
- Theoretical differences, e.g. Bambara/Mandekan
- Ethnologue is a great resource on languages
Subject Headings/Word Searches
- LC subject headings and other controlled vocabularies don’t always match the way researchers look for information, e.g., “examples of ethnic conflict in Africa.”
- Authors don’t always put significant words in the title and abstract.
- Terminology changes over time
Problem 3: Found the Reference But Where is the Item?
Consult African Studies Libraries and Collections
- Boston University African Studies Library: Includes guides to specialized portions of the print and electronic collections, tutorials and research guides.
- Center for Research Libraries: Cooperative Africana Microforms Project
- Columbia University: Includes a guide to Web resources and research guides.
- Cornell University John Henrik Clarke Africana Library: Includes Sankofa , the Africana Library newsletter, and links to related Web sites.
- Duke University: Includes a guide to African studies resources in the Duke University Libraries and links to pertinent Web sites.
- Harvard University: Widener Library; Tozzer Library
- Howard University Moorland-Spingarn Research Center: Includes the Moorland-Spingarn Archives electronic newsletter, HU ArchivesNet.
- Indiana University: Includes links to Web sites, including “favorites” suggested by faculty and students; guides to special portions of the collection, and “Africana Resources for Undergraduates: A Bibliographic Essay” by Nancy J. Schmidt, reprinted from Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara (eds.) Africa Third edition. Bloomington, IL: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 413-434.
- Library of Congress African and Middle East Reading Room: Includes country guides and links to selected Web sites.
- Michigan State University: Contains guides to the collections and selected Web sites.
- New York University: contains research guides and links to selected Web sites, arranged in categories.
- Northwestern University Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies: contains links to catalogs of specialized materials in the collection, including the electronic poster collection, the Conference Paper Index, the Africana Vertical Index, and the Timbuktu Archives, as well as links to selected Web sites and reference sources.
- Ohio University: contains guides to materials in the collection, including the depositories of government publications from Botswana and Swaziland.
- Princeton University: contains links to selected Web sites.
- Rutgers University: Contains a guide to reference works, descriptions of special portions of the collection, as well as links to related Web sites.
- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library): Contains exhibits and guides to special collections.
- Smithsonian Institution, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art: Contains extensive links to Web sites related to African art.
- Stanford University: The Library’s site provides guides to Stanford’s collections. The librarian, Karen Fung, also created and maintains Africa South of the Sahara, the most comprehensive and well-organized guide to Web sites pertaining to Africa.
- State University of New York/Albany: includes a monthly list of new titles and links to electronic resources.
- University of California – Berkeley: Includes links to selected Web sites.
- UCLA: Includes links to selected Web sites.
- University of Florida: Contains research guides to African women writers and a bibliography of theses and dissertations on Africa completed at the University of Florida from 1956 through 2000.
- University of Idaho has links to Repositories of Primary Resources in Africa.
- University of Illinois AfricanStudies Internet Portal: contains lists of internet resources on Africa. The Africana Library site lists recent acquisitions, numerous research guides, and a list of theses and dissertations completed at the University of Illinois from 1921 to 2000. The Center for African Studies site also contains links to sites useful for research.
- University of Iowa hosts the including the Electronic Journal of Africana Bibliography, and numerous other projects.
- University of Kansas contains a guide to Africana resources.
- University of Michigan for an overview of resources for African Studies.
- University of Pennsylvania contains guides to the collection and links to related sites. The site of the African Studies Center provides links to an array of research sites for African studies.
- University of Wisconsin. In addition to the main library, the Digital Collection on African Studies has an extensive Africana collection. The African Studies Program site provides access to a number of resources and links.
- Yale University provides a research guide for Africa and guides to Yale’s collections.
Get Publications from Africa
Problem 4: Determining if the Information is Accurate and Valid
There are many pitfalls when it comes to determining the accuracy and validity of information sources.
Here are some issues to consider:
- Author: is the author well known in the field? Does any biographical information exist about the author. Have they authored other publications on the topic? With which lens (political, historical etc.) does the author view the topic?
- Content: is the topic controversial? Has the author consulted primary sources? How extensive is the list of references or bibliography?
- Publisher: is the publisher reputable? Is the document published in print or only online? Which other publications do they publish? Has the author self published?
- Date of the publication: how old is the information? Is it still relevant? In the case of older books – are they accessible? What were the prevailing beliefs or attitudes at certain times in history?
- Websites: look carefully at the domain name. Educational institutions typically end with .edu and organizations with .org. Government departments end with .gov.
- Citation counts: how many times has the article/book been cited by other authors in the field? Usually a greater number of citations indicates a higher quality article. Who has cited it?
- Africana Librarians Council
- Draft Copy of Opportunities and Challenges in Africana Library Service: A Framework for Cooperation and Development
- Africana Libraries Newsletter
- The Catalog Committee undertakes projects aimed at improving access to Africana collections. A major on-going project is the Subject Heading Funnel, wherein Africana catalogers suggest and draft subject headings for the Library of Congress.
- Directory of Book Donation Programs
- Cooperative Africana Microforms Project is a joint effort by research libraries throughout the world and the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) to promote the preservation of publications and archives concerning the nearly fifty nations of Sub-Saharan Africa and to make these materials in microform available to researchers. Projects include the Senegal ArchivesProject, African Newspapers Union List (AFRINUL), and guides to CAMP collections.
Resources for Researching Africa
- Start at the African Studies Library site:
- Other Africana libraries, worldwide
- Ask other librarians: Directory of the Africana Librarians Council (scroll down the left-hand menu, the directory is a downloadable Word doc).
- African Abstracts (University of Leiden)
- African Journals Online
- Quarterly Index of African Periodical Literature
African Governments on the WWW provides good links (when they work).
H-Africa, is a great example of an electronic discussion list featuring discussion logs, book reviews, tables of contents to Africanist and non-Africanist journals, and more. There is a “family” of African sites linked from this page: